[This article was written for a small Japanese label which specializes in historical issues of live European orchestral performances.]

Herbert Kegel was born in Dresden–a city which was to have so much meaning for his later musical career–on July 29, 1920. Although he did not come from a musical family, his talent was so apparent that his father, on a laborer’s wages, managed to buy him a piano. He studied the piano seriously, becoming adept enough so that he played Rachmaninov’s Second Concerto as a graduating piece from the Staatskapelle Dresden School. While there he also studied cello, conducting, and composition (with Boris Blacher).

Kegel asked the famous conductor Karl Bohm to give him conducting lessons. Kegel later said that Bohm told him, “Come to my rehearsals. You can learn everything you need there.” “He was right,” Kegel continued. “Conducting is something you largely have to teach yourself.” It was also Bohm who introduced Kegel to much contemporary music–including works by then-banned Jewish composers–and convinced him of the importance of understanding and performing contemporary music. Kegel also studied choral conducting with Alfred Stier, studies which were to prove very important to him.

In 1940 Kegel was drafted, serving throughout the duration of the war. He became a skilled radio operator. But a wartime gunshot injury to his left hand put an end to his career as a pianist. The war also made a profound impression on Kegel’s sensibilities. To the end of his life he took every opportunity to perform music with anti-war themes. He often prefaced performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw or Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, leading without pause directly into the Beethoven Symphony.

After the war was over, Kegel got his first regular conducting job, at the Pirna Operetta Theater, where he supplemented the usual fare of light operettas with contemporary works by Wagner-Régeny and Hindemith. In 1946 he became assistant music director and choirmaster at Rostock, where he was also commissioned to compose a theater piece for Easter.

In 1949, after he had led several successful broadcast performances, Kegel was offered the music direction of Radio Leipzig, including conducting its choir. He enjoyed the demands of broadcasting, and the tradition of the Radio Leipzig Symphony Orchestra, which had been founded in 1924 and had long been known for its performances of contemporary music. The orchestra’s activities had been suspended during the war but they resumed with enthusiasm shortly after it ended. Hermann Abendroth became principal conductor of the orchestra in 1949, but Kegel was involved in its activities, and he became its principal conductor in 1958, two years after Abendroth’s death. Meanwhile, he had made the Leipzig Radio Chorus internationally famous, to the extent that was possible within the severe restrictions of Communist East Germany, one of the most insular of all the Eastern European Communist countries.

These restrictions prevented Kegel from developing a major international reputation until just before the end of his life. In the West he was known principally through a handful of recordings which were issued outside East Germany–most especially a series of Mozart choral works, which became part of the Philips Complete Mozart Edition.

In 1977, Kegel relocated to Dresden, where he became music director of the Dresden Philharmonic, that city’s second orchestra (after the more celebrated Staatskapelle Dresden). He continued in Dresden his tradition of performing much contemporary music, and he had many successes with the orchestra. Outstanding among them was his recording of the complete Beethoven Symphonies for the Capriccio label, the first digitally recorded set of this cycle intended for the new compact disc medium. The recordings were critically praised for their performances as well as for their sound quality.

In the 1980s, great successes in Japan seemed to promise the long-delayed development of a truly international career for Kegel. But he had suffered throughout his life from bouts of clinical depression, which hampered his career and apparently caused the ends of all four of his marriages. In 1990, a severe attack of depression led him to commit suicide, bringing a tragic and premature end to what should have been a glorious late career.

The Beethoven performances on this disc date from Kegel’s Leipzig years. They demonstrate both the quality of his interpretations and the outstanding results he had achieved with the orchestra despite the economic and artistic strictures prevailing in East Germany.

Among more prolific recording conductors, Kegel will remind many listeners of Hans Rosbaud and Hermann Scherchen. Like Kegel, both were famous for their strong commitment to contemporary music and their many premiere performances. Also like Kegel, both were superb interpreters of mainstream classical repertory. In the Eighth Symphony, Kegel captures the adventure and humor of the music, in which Beethoven tries many experiments and inserts numerous subtle jokes. The way Kegel has the orchestra accent Beethoven’s off-beat accents and other surprises is almost enough to cause a listener to laugh out loud. But the performance is also filled with subtleties and nuances, never a crude exploitation of the music just for laughs.

Kegel’s “Eroica” is one of the many great performances of this seminal work that have been left to us on recordings. Unlike such other great interpreters as Furtwaengler and Toscanini, Kegel never seems to be putting his personal stamp on the music, yet the performance is filled with character and energy.

In this relatively straightforward performance, Kegel brings out the originality of Beethoven. The first movement’s many surprises, shocking to their early listeners, come across with their novelty intact. The second movement becomes extremely expressive through its dignified restraint, its grief muted but the range of expression very wide. The third movement comes as a great relief with its sparkling energy, and the finale rushes onwards towards a thrilling conclusion. Throughout the Symphony, the playing is so well executed and beautiful in sound that it is difficult to remember that this was a live performance by a modest radio orchestra. What was meant to be heard once has become something for the ages. –Leslie Gerber

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